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From menial to meaningful: Hygienists, it’s time to own our worth

July 7, 2023
"Hygiene is an essential pillar of the office; it's that simple." If you get stuck in a rut of feeling like your work is in any way menial, read on for empowerment tips, as well as a guide on how to better communicate with patients.

Dentistry is big business; in fact in 2023, it’s estimated to be a $171.7 billion industry.1 The hygiene department is a business within a business. This aspect is often hard to transition to from school to private practice. We know how to be clinicians, but at times as we translate our clinical skills to business skills, it can lead to feelings that what we’re doing is menial.

Here are ways to change your perspective from feeling you’re menial to knowing you’re meaningful.

Know you’re an advocate

There have been many times that we’ve had to advocate to the caregiver for a child to receive basic care like fillings, and also treatment that caregivers may see as less important like orthodontics or sleep apnea treatment. Essentially every time we provide oral hygiene education, we’re advocating for improved oral health. How we advocate or explain these treatment plans matters.

You might also want to read: 4 things you can do now for better patient communication

Know you help patients prevent oral disease

Prevention is a core role of a dental hygienist. We prevent caries, periodontal diseases, oral cancer—and that is anything but menial. But when patients don’t accept recommendations, it can add to that demotivated, “menial” feeling— so we must also prevent refusal by remembering that how you say it matters when it comes to case acceptance. See the sidebar below for examples of best verbiage practices when communicating with patients.

Know what you do is essential to production—and to the livelihoods of your coworkers

When the hygiene schedule is full, the restorative schedule will be full. And when the schedule is full, the office is producing. This creates jobs and funds to pay those who are employed at the office. Hygiene is an essential pillar of the office; it’s that simple.

Take care of yourself mentally and physically

Self-care is a key to pulling these pieces together. As dental hygienists, we spend our days helping others. We encourage patients to improve their oral care, we discuss oral and systemic relations to patients, and we promote healthy habits and lifestyles. To be the most successful version of yourself in the op, you need to your own advice.

Research has shown that well-being outside of work can significantly influence job performance. So if you’re unhappy outside the op, you’re more likely to be struggling to perform well inside the op.2 Taking the time to invest in yourself mentally and physically can result in a serious boost in your career—so practice self-care, pick up a hobby to stay active, and if needed, find a therapist. It’s part of remembering that what you do is valuable and truly meaningful!

Sidebar: Getting to patient acceptance more effectively

What you might want to say: Do you want fluoride, that sticky stuff that goes on your teeth?

What to say instead:  You mentioned you were having sensitivity, and fluoride is clinically proven to treat that. I recommend we do this for you every time you come in for your cleanings; however, it’s not covered by your insurance, and it's $30. Are you OK if we apply the fluoride after your exam?

What you might want to say: You need a deep cleaning.

What to say instead: After reviewing your x-rays and periodontal chart, we need to change course on the types of cleanings you’ve been getting. I know you weren’t expecting this today, but we need to address it. You have slight periodontal disease (show patient their periodontal chart and bone loss in the x-rays), and if we don’t treat it now, bone loss will continue. We need to keep the bone to hold your teeth in place.

What you might want to say: You need silver diamine fluoride, but it’ll turn your teeth black.

What to say instead: With the sensitivity and small cavity on your upper right corner, I’m going to recommend we place silver diamine fluoride on those teeth. Not only will this product treat your sensitivity; it will also kill the cavity-causing bacteria and will stop the decay from getting any larger. Before I apply this product to your teeth, you should know that the tooth with the decay will have a small dark area where the decay was, but with how far back the tooth is in your mouth, I don’t see this being an issue. I would like to do this today and get you out of pain and discomfort. Would you like to move forward with treatment?

What you might want to say: You just need a prophy.

What to say instead: I am seeing several signs of gingivitis today (insert all signs you are observing). With this amount of heavy bleeding, when I take these probe measurements, it’s in your best interest if we do a gingivitis cleaning today. With a gingivitis cleaning we will use a numbing gel (Cetacaine) to help keep you comfortable. I noticed you didn't love me taking those measurements today, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable you would be during a “regular” cleaning. After this cleaning we will have you come back in four months rather than the usual six. This will put you at three cleanings this year, leaving you with one cleaning out of pocket. Again, an additional cleaning is in your best interest.

What you might want to say: Do you want an electric toothbrush? It’s $100.

What to say instead: Are you using a manual or an electric toothbrush?

If they answer manual:

I want to recommend we switch you to an electric toothbrush. Your gums are swollen, and I really think an electric toothbrush can get them back in shape. The electric toothbrush we carry in the office has a pressure detector on it that will help prevent you from brushing too hard and will prevent further recession. It will also get you brushing longer with the two-minute timer. There are also few perks of getting the electric toothbrush at the office: a $30 mail-in rebate and 2-year warranty, and you can use your HSA or flex spending account. Dr. _____ has them priced very affordably at $100. Can we send you home today with a new electric toothbrush?

If they answer electric:

Here are a few follow-up questions to still make a close on this recommendation.

How old is your current electric toothbrush?

It might be time to upgrade. You are showing several signs of gingivitis.

What brand are you using? You have pretty high plaque levels for someone with an electric toothbrush.

I would recommend you switch to this brand that Dr. ______ has in the office. This is the toothbrush I use at home, and I think you would like it.

What you might want to say: You need a sealant; insurance doesn’t cover it.

What to say instead: With the deep grooves on the chewing surfaces of your molars, I highly recommend we place sealants to help prevent decay. Unfortunately this is not a covered benefit on your current insurance plan, but it's only $_____ per tooth here at the office. We have time in the schedule today to place these sealants for you. Would you like to have them done today and save yourself a trip back to the office?

You might also be interested in: Sealant placement procedure video by Hygiene Edge


1. IBIS World. Dentists in the US—Market Size 2003 - 2029. Accessed April 12, 2023. https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/market-size/dentists-united-states/#:~:text=The%20market%20size%2C%20measured%20by,in%20the%20US%20in%202023%3F

2. Lu X, Yu H, Shan B. Relationship between employee mental health and job performance: mediation role of innovative behavior and work engagement. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 May 28;19(11):6599. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19116599.